If Mars: War Logs had been released before Mass Effect took us to the red planet (and many more besides), before The Witcher 2 perfected the PC Western RPG, and before every other RPG incorporated player choice, it might have seemed special. Released in April 2013, at the end of a generation, Mars: War Logs feels antiquated. Those parched for another Western RPG will find a playable and amusing, if underdeveloped and sloppy, science fiction experience in Mars: War Logs.
War Logs begins telling its story through an NPC’s perspective, similar to Dragon Age II’s narrative, although in the present tense. This is wisely implemented to make the player character Roy seem more mysterious and powerful than he otherwise might. When Roy saves the narrator from a corpulent queen about to despoil the boy’s virginity, the two make plans to escape the POW camp in which they’re imprisoned. Things turn political quickly, and Roy is eventually pressured to choose sides in a typical WRPG fight of the factions.
Character development is shackled by a cheesy Martian naming convention: many citizens are given “virtue” names like Temperance and Morality, and the aforementioned narrator is conspicuously named Innocence. Subtlety is not War Logs’ virtue name. The plot is equally underdeveloped, but much of the game’s failures result from its astonishingly bad writing, which renders entire conversations incoherent and, thankfully, silly. The voice acting is equally if not even more bemusing. Character motivations remain clouded, and sloppy dialogue thwarts most of the potential of the setting.
The planet Mars is essentially just a costume: a dusty red blanket draped over the bulky form of the fantasy WRPG. For better and for worse, you know what to expect: action combat, skill trees, side quests, mild exploration, companions, crafting, a morality system, and player choice. There’s a substantial game here, but it’s derivative and underdeveloped. Combat is totally functional and even enjoyable at times, but it’s repetitive and there are only a few different tactics to use on the same few enemies. Crafting is shallow, exploration is repetitive due to limited environments, and player choices are often binary or absurdly black and white. War Logs reeks of the overly familiar stench of rushed development.
There are a few anomalies in the WRPG formula thanks to the game’s futuristic setting. Although the technomancer powers may be nearly indistinguishable from magic, money comes in the form of “serum,” which is a precious and rare commodity that can be drained from downed human enemies. Doing so kills them, however, which plays into the game’s morality system. A few other small details, like the differences crafting makes on a weapon’s appearance, made me pause and consider the game with a tad more favor.
The first sentence uttered in Mars: War Logs’ opening cutscene doesn’t make sense, but for that and its hundreds of other errors, War Logs is a miraculously un-frustrating game. I never threw a fit while playing it (although I threw a few swears during the tougher fights), and I never pleaded for it to end. No doubt its modest length has something to do with that, and the side quests and choices make the game longer for those who want it. Mars: War Logs is derivative, underdeveloped, and features one of the briefest, most rushed final chapters I’ve seen, but it’s also completely playable and even charming in a B-movie kind of way.
Update: Developer Spiders is clearly listening. Mars: War Logs has its fans, and yet even they must admit that the dialogue was pretty nonsensical at times. Recently, an update was released for this game that introduced a completely redone English script and voice acting to accompany it. I’m here to tell you that the first sentence of the game now makes sense.
Playing the game with the new dialogue isn’t necessarily a brand new experience; I wouldn’t say it’s worth replaying just for the improvements. However, those who haven’t played the game yet will get a more coherent story as well as some slightly improved voice acting. The story and lore are more easily digestible, and character relationships are better understood. Unfortunately, conversations still lack the natural flow of real human communication, and there are awkward moments as a voice actor completely misses the meaning of a sentence. There’s also a new audio glitch that causes the voice acting to prematurely cut out before a sentence is finished. This happened very frequently, but I imagine a patch will soon remedy this distraction.
Regardless, Spiders and Focus Home ought to be lauded for this kind of dedication. Retranslating and re-recording voice work is a time-consuming and probably expensive affair, but they decided it was worth the time and energy. Let’s hope they put just as much care into their next fantasy RPG, Bound by Flame.